Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) is trying to come up with a plan to meet the state’s new guidelines on opening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. The guidance calls for districts to reduce class sizes and spread students apart, but it doesn’t tell them how.
“There is no easy answer to this. There is nothing that is going to be simple,” JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters during a press conference Thursday.
Pollio said the district of 98,000 students is still expecting to reveal its reopening plan in mid-July. That plan is in development, but the superintendent hinted the district is working on plans for both in-person and digital learning.
“We are planning for the option of going back to school,” Pollio said. “We are also looking at how we can implement a virtual option for students and families.”
Pollio said based on early feedback, parents are “just about equally split” between those who want students to go back into the classroom in the fall, and those who fear sending their child to school.
The state has offered several models for reducing class sized. Pollio said he is still leaning away from the “scheduled rotation” model, in which different groups of students go to school on different days.
“I think superintendents across the state that I’ve talked to are unified of the difficulty and challenge of that. We haven’t ruled it [out] and said that it’s completely off the table. But that is a difficult option when it comes to logistics,” he said, noting it would present challenges for parents, including many teachers who have children.
The “synchronous opt-in hybrid” model offered by the state would allow some students to come to school, while others learned remotely through structured digital interactions with their classmates and teachers.
Other strategies include a combination of rotating schedules and digital learning, and a fully online model.
In addition to planning for regular school days, Pollio said the district is also preparing to pivot into nontraditional instruction (NTI) if needed due to a surge in cases of COVID-19.
“If we have to go back to that in the fall, we’ve got to be better,” he said, adding that more students need to have Chromebooks and internet access. Pollio said the district wants NTI to be more “synchronous,” or structured next year. NTI during this past spring was mostly “asynchronous,” meaning students were doing work and interacting with content on their own time.
“We definitely want to move to a more synchronous model where students are logging on on a daily basis and having direct classroom instruction where we can monitor attendance on a daily basis,” he said. In the spring, the standard for participation was one interaction with a teacher per week.
In order to move to more structured digital instruction, Pollio said each student needs a device and internet access. With funding from the federal CARES Act, Pollio said he believed the district would be able to purchase enough devices.
In a recent meeting district officials said they plan to have 81,000 Chromebooks for students in the fall. Last year the district gave out 25,000 Chromebooks during NTI to households of low-income students, and students with disabilities.
“For us to move to this model, we have to make sure that every student has a device, not just one in a household,” Pollio said.
But Internet connectivity continues to be an issue. The district is looking at short-term answers, like purchasing more Wifi hotspots. But Pollio said what’s really needed are long-term solutions to expand internet access.